Cultural Adjustment

While traveling to another country to study can be a wonderful and exciting experience, exposure to a new culture and lack of familiarity with local behaviors and customs can complicate the process of adjusting to university life and achieving your academic goals. Living in a foreign country is very challenging. In the first year, almost everyone experiences “cultural shock” to some degree. Cultural shock is caused by being unfamiliar with the new country, by not being able to speak the language fluently or understanding the many new idioms, and by not knowing how to behave in an unfamiliar culture. Not only is the language different, but gestures, facial expressions, and traditions are also different.

Stages of Cultural Adjustment

There are typically four stages of cultural adjustment, though each lasts a different length of time for every person who experiences it. Typically the stages are:

Stage1: During this stage international students often feel excited. The new country is interesting, the people are friendly and helpful and the future looks promising.

Stage2: Problems! Schools, language, shopping-everything is difficult. Things that were simple back home require more effort in the new country. It seems hard to make friends, and at this point, international students may begin to believe that the local people are unfriendly. Homesickness begins, and along with it complaints about the new country. This is Cultural Shock.

Stage3: Recovery-The international student begins to use the language more fluently, so communication between locals becomes easier. Customs and traditions become more clear and slowly the situation passes from impossible to hopeful. Minor misunderstandings, which were stressful in stage 2 now become manageable.

Stage4: Stability-Eventually international students begin to feel more at home in the new country. Things they do not like about their new country no longer makes them feel so dissatisfied and unhappy. Life has settled down, and they are now able to find humor in the situation in which they find themselves.

Actions that you can take that will help with culture shock include

  • Keep an open mind
  • Learn from your experience
  • Improve your English
  • Set realistic goals
  • Get involved
  • Ask for help

The American society is one of the most culturally diverse societies in the world. Even with this diversity, it is possible, in general, to describe attitudes and practices that are common among Americans.


Most Americans see themselves as separate individuals, and only secondly as representatives of a family, community, or other group. They dislike being dependent on another person. Americans are taught that “all men are created equal.” While they may violate the principle in some aspects of life, in other aspects they adhere to it. They treat each other in very informal ways, even in the presence of great differences of age or social standing. From the point of view of people from other cultures, this type of behavior may reflect lack of respect.

Guidelines for Interacting with Americans

Men usually shake hands with each other the first time they meet. Men usually do not shake hands with women unless the woman extends her hand first. Women do not usually shake hands with each other. Students who meet one another will normally not shake hands at all. A student could shake hands with a professor or staff person if introduced, but not usually with a fellow student.

Ritual Greetings

When two people are first introduced, the dialogue normally goes something like: “How do you do?” “Fine, thank you. How are you?” “Fine, thanks.” After the first meeting, there are two kinds of greetings. The more formal is “Good Morning,” “Good Afternoon,” or “Good Evening.” The less formal is simply “Hello” or “Hi.” Any of these greetings may be followed by “How are you?” To this one should answer “Fine, thank you,” whether you are fine or not! The American casual parting remark “See you later,” means “goodbye,” and does not mean that the person saying it has a specific intention to see you later.

Conversations with Americans

Another way of describing differences between people from diverse cultural backgrounds, besides comparing their values, is comparing their styles of communication. In casual conversation(what they call “small talk”), Americans prefer to talk about the weather, jobs, sports, people they both know, classes, or past experiences, especially ones they have in common. Some Americans do not discuss politics, or religion, at least not with people they do not know well, because politics and religion are considered controversial topics.


Some content from this page courtesy of Savannah State University